Meat thermometers are more than "just" the key
to a perfect roast
Meat thermometers might
seem like an unnecessary accessory -- after all, can't you tell when a piece of
meat is done by cutting into it, or poking it with a finger? For home cooks,
the answer is no. As clever as some of the guesswork methods of estimating when
meat is done may be, they're just that -- guesswork.
In fact, many of us are
reaping the consequences of all that guesswork without realizing it. Often,
what we call the "stomach flu" is not related to the influenza virus
at all, but instead a reaction to improperly cooked food. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that every
year about 1 in 6 Americans gets sick from foodborne diseases. That's 48 million people -- and of
that group, some 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.
Even the old methods that
once worked -- for example, waiting until a cooked chicken's juices run clear
to call it done -- don't necessarily work today, because the way we've raised
our meat animals has changed. Things get especially tricky when you're dealing
with a big roast, ham or turkey, because different parts of the meat may heat
at different rates, and you need to be sure the entire cut is done all the way
Having a meat thermometer
in hand is the only way to be sure the meat you're cooking is safe. As a bonus,
it'll also make it easy for you to produce perfectly cooked cuts of meat every
time, even if your grill or oven has hot spots that make separate cuts of meat
Types of Meat Thermometers
An instant-read thermometer is poked into the meat to check its doneness, then removed. "Instant-read" thermometers can have two types of sensors: thermistors, which are less expensive but can take 5 to 7 seconds -- or more -- to provide an accurate temperature, or thermocouples, which are more expensive but give accurate readings within 2 to 4 seconds.
Leave-in thermometers (also called probe thermometers) have one or more probes that are inserted into the meat and left there as you cook, or clipped to the oven or grill rack to monitor ambient temperature. The probes are connected to a base station which displays the temperature and sounds an alarm when your meat reaches the desired temperature. Some leave-in thermometers can also be programmed to chart the meat's temperature over time or sound an alarm if it exceeds a set minimum or maximum temperature.
Most probes remain connected to the thermometer display base by cables, but wireless probe thermometers -- most of which use Bluetooth technology to communicate with the display base -- are becoming more common. One of the leave-in thermometer probes we evaluated can even communicate with your smartphone.
Where to put the
You should measure the temperature
of a large cut of meat in several places, because variations in the grill or
oven temperature and the meat itself can cause it to cook at uneven rates.
If you're using a
thermocouple thermometer that gives quick readings, insert the thermometer into
the thickest part of the meat, pushing just past the center, then pull the
thermometer out slowly and take the lowest (coldest) reading. Don't position
the thermometer against the bone, because bone heats at a different rate than
the meat of the muscle. If you're cooking a steak, a burger or other slim cuts
of meat, try inserting the meat thermometer from the side.
If you're using a
thermistor thermometer that can take up to 30 seconds to give an accurate
reading, aim as close to the center of the cut of meat as possible and leave
the thermometer in place until you get a stable reading. Then pull it slowly
out to check for cold spots.
Calibrating a meat
Although all meat
thermometers are calibrated when they come out of the box, some thermometers
can be calibrated at home to fine-tune their accuracy. Experts recommend doing
this once a year, or any time the thermometer has been dropped or possibly
Check your thermometer's
accuracy by inserting the probe into a glass of ice water, just below the level
of the ice; it should read within a few degrees of 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Test
another extreme with boiling water: The thermometer should read 212 degrees, or
a little less if you live above sea level. For most purposes, being within 2 or
3 degrees of those goals is good enough. If your thermometer needs to be
calibrated, consult the owner's manual for specific directions.
Finding The Best Meat Thermometers
Editors of Consumer Reports, Not Dated
Editors of Cook's Illustrated, As of November 2016
Meathead Goldwyn, As of November 2016
In order to find the best
meat thermometers, we consulted reviews from expert foodie and tech sites such
as Cook's Illustrated, ConsumerReports.org, Good Housekeeping, AmazingRibs.com
and TheSweethome.com. We also evaluated hundreds of user reviews from retail
websites, although one notable brand, ThermoWorks, is usually available only
from the manufacturer.